INDIANAPOLIS — With 33 seconds remaining in Friday’s quarterfinal game versus Illinois, all signs seemed to point to a Wisconsin victory.
Although the Badgers trailed by two, they had stolen all the game’s momentum from Illinois. And Trevon Hughes was on such a hot streak nothing could stop him. Except, of course, Hughes’ fifth foul, which came just seven seconds later.
With that, the Illini regained the game’s momentum, making two of three free throws while the Badgers missed their only shot attempt.
Shooting 8-of-10 from the field, a perfect 2-for-2 beyond the arc and 3-of-5 from the free-throw line, junior center Mike Tisdale led all scorers Friday afternoon with 21 points.
When the final buzzer sounded and the score read 58-54 in Illinois’ favor, the Illini walked off the court knowing their season would continue at least another day.
“We came here to keep living one day at a time,” Illini head coach Bruce Weber said. “So we’re excited about [the win].”
Conversely, those in cardinal and white were left asking “What if?” As in, what if the Badgers had made seven shots in the first half instead of six? Or, what if Wisconsin had gone to the free-throw line 20 times instead of 14?
And finally, what if Hughes had never fouled out of the game? Of course, like a true senior, Hughes was quick to point out the flaw in the last of those questions.
“You can’t look at it that way,” he said. “In the first half, if I made a couple there or tr[ied] to get some more stops on defense, we wouldn’t have even been in that situation. It’s throughout the whole game, not just that instance right there when I fouled out.
“The whole game, we put ourselves in that position. We had a chance to win or tie it, and we feel short.”
Then again, what if Illinois had kept UW down for the entire 40 minutes, rather than allowing its opponent to cut the lead to just two points late in the game?
With 6:50 remaining in the game, Demetri McCamey missed a layup, grabbed his own rebound and found D.J. Richardson open beyond the arc. Richardson hit that jumper, extending Illinois’ lead to 46-30 and all but sealing victory for the Illini.
Or so it seemed.
Over the next six-plus minutes, Wisconsin outscored Illinois 24-10 to make it just a two-point game when Hughes drilled a three with 33 seconds remaining. Hughes had gone 0-for-11 to start the game, but finished the game by hitting four of his last five, all from beyond the arc.
Much like he did earlier in the season at Northwestern, Hughes did not let his poor shooting throughout the first 38 minutes of the game discourage him.
“You’ve got to keep believing,” head coach Bo Ryan said. “As poorly as our shooters shot the ball, they were still the ones that were igniting some good things that were happening.”
To open the game, Hughes was not the only one struggling offensively. Wisconsin shot poorly as a team in the first half — and that’s putting it lightly.
The Badgers hit just 18.2 percent of 33 first-half attempts from the floor, including just 3-for-12 from beyond the arc. As a result, UW scored just 20 points before halftime.
Of those 20, junior forward Jon Leuer had 11, leading all scorers. Leuer would score just three points in the second half, though, matching Hughes with a team-high 14 points.
Illinois’ first half shooting was just the opposite, as head coach Bruce Weber’s squad shot 13-of-20, or 65 percent from the floor before the break. McCamey led the Illini with 10 first-half points.
But thanks to 10 Illini turnovers in the opening period, the halftime score was just 29-20.
For the game, Illinois turned the ball over 17 times, compared to just five turnovers for Wisconsin. Unfortunately for the Badgers, however, they did not take advantage quite as well as they would have liked.
“What did they end up with, 17 turnovers?” Ryan asked rhetorically after the game. “Come on. That’s — you put a team in that position where there’s a difference of 12, you’ve got to be on the other side with that one.
“And then when you’re not, you lick your wounds and go to next.”
While the game was within reach at the half, the Badgers failed to break out of their poor shooting ways to open the second half, as Illinois scored five unanswered over the first four minutes to make it 34-20. A 6-2 run by Wisconsin shortly thereafter cut that lead back to 10 points at 36-26.
Play went back and forth over the next five minutes, with Illinois leading 41-30 with 9:51 remaining after a pair of Jason Bohannon free throws. The next five points went to Illinois, though, which made it 46-30 following Richardson’s shot.
Wisconsin made it interesting from there, but it was simply too little too late.